Posts Tagged ‘Samanta Schweblin’

Mouthful of Birds

February 12, 2019

Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel, Fever Dream, burned with nightmarish intensity, and so it’s no surprise to discover that many of the short stories collected in Mouthful of Birds similarly exploit our darkest fears. More than one explores the same parental anxiety, a fear that encapsulates both the terror of a child’s death and the haunting doubt of their otherness. In ‘Butterflies’, one of the shortest stories, a father waiting for his daughter at the end of the school day catches a butterfly:

“A brownish butterfly lands on Calderon’s arm and he quickly traps it. The creature struggles to get away, but he presses its wings together and holds it by the ends.”

When the school doors open, instead of children, “hundreds of butterflies of every colour and size rush out towards the waiting parents.”

“Calderon…stands motionless. He can’t bring himself to life his foot from the one he has killed. He is, perhaps, afraid of recognising his girl’s colours in its dead wings.”

In one surreal moment Schweblin reveals the damage parents fear they might accidentally inflict. In ‘Underground’ Schweblin taps into the fear of disappearance, and in the title story she examines the lengths to which the parent-child bond will stretch. The father who narrates the story is quickly aware something is not right the moment his daughter, Sara, greets him, “Hi, Dad” –

“Although my little girl really was a sweetheart, two word were all it took for me to realise that something was really off about the kid…”

An empty bird cage provides the first clue. His ex-wife, Silvia, can no longer cope, and he is, understandably, appalled:

“She eats birds! Have you taken her to the doctor? What in the hell does she do with the bones?”

He takes Sara to live with him, her mother providing a daily supply of birds – but what will he do when Silvia fails to turn up and cannot be contacted? The story demonstrates the way in which parents adapt to their children (though we may think it’s the other way round), and, in the horror of Sara’s blood-stained mouth, highlights the fear of their children’s loss of innocence.

Though children only appear in a few of the stories, violence and death are common to many of them. In ‘The Test’ the narrator must beat a dog to death in order to prove himself to local criminal gang:

“Beating a dog to death in the Buenos Aires port is the test they use to see if you’re capable of doing something worse.”

Though he successfully carries out this task, he discovers the world is more dog eat dog than he originally suspected. In two of the stories violence is linked to art. ‘Heads Against Concrete’ features a painter who turns an act of childhood violence into an artistic obsession bringing him many commissions:

“They pay me whatever I ask. Later I see the painting hung in their enormous, empty living rooms, and I think that those guys deserve to see themselves good and smashed on the ground by my hand, and they seem very much to agree when they stand in front of the paintings.”

When he is asked by a Korean dentist to decorate his waiting room, the violence suddenly spills from the painting. In ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’ we see the same process in reverse as a murdered body is put on display as if it is a work of art. Schweblin seems to be suggesting care should be taken when we glorify harm as an art form.

Though these themes resurface, the collection as a whole demonstrates Schweblin’s versatility. She can work within the limits of a few pages, as in ‘The Digger’ (with its wonderfully unsettling conclusion, “You can’t dig…the hole is yours”), and she can develop character over the longer form. She is adept at the surreal, as a story like ‘The Merman’ makes clear, where the narrator falls for the titular sea creature:

“I kiss him, and I feel the cold of his mouth awaken every cell in my body, like a cool drink in the middle of summer.”

Despite its mythological premise, the story exemplifies the compulsion of lust. She can also write entirely naturalistically, as in ‘Santa Claus Sleeps at our House’, a story which contains the pathos one might expect from the title, though in an unexpected way. Her particular talent, though, is to transform the ordinary into something menacing, even terrifying, which is both explicable and incomprehensible at the same time. We see this to greatest effect in stories like ‘On the Steppe’ and ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’. The latter begins with a train station which will not sell tickets and where trains will, therefore, never stop, and heads full steam towards a conclusion of which Kafka would be proud, proving, as so many of these stories do, that Fever Dream was only the first sight of an extraordinary writer.

Fever Dream

February 6, 2017


Samanta Schweblin’s astonishing first novel Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) is a tour de force of tension, its brief pages flicking frantically before the reader’s eyes in desperate pursuit of a conclusion. The novel takes the form of a conversation, part police interrogation, part Platonic dialogue, between Amanda and David, the child of a woman she has only recently befriended while on holiday. The conversation takes place in a hospital room where Amanda is convinced she is dying:

“But I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself.”

“None of this is important,” replies David, “We’re wasting time.” Earlier he insisted, “…we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.” And so we also have a battle for narrative supremacy: who will tell the story, and whose story will it be?

Amanda begins with David’s mother, Carla, in her car, crying. Carla tells her the story of her son and the sickness which affected him six year earlier when he was very young. Her husband, Omar, had borrowed a stallion for breeding; Carla notices that the horse has escaped from its paddock and goes in search of it carrying David. They find the horse drinking from a stream and Carla puts David down to collect it. A moment later she turns to find:

“David had knelt down in the stream, his shoes were soaked. He’d put his hands in the water and was sucking on his fingers. Then I saw the dead bird.”

By the next morning the horse is dying and so Carla, desperate to save her son, takes him to a local healer:

“She can tell if someone is sick, and where in the body the negative energy is coming from.”

The woman tells Carla that David has been poisoned and that he will die unless they try a “migration”, that is move David’s spirit to anther body:

“…then part of the poison would with him. Split into two bodies, there was the chance he could pull through.”

While this supernatural strand runs through the novel it is only one reading – initially Carla’s and increasingly Amanda’s – of events. Its importance is in emphasising the lengths mothers will go to in order to protect their children, also seen in Amanda’s obsession with the ‘rescue distance’, that is the maximum distance she can be from her daughter Nina and still be able to rescue her:

“It changes depending on the situation. For example, in the first hours we spent in the vacation house, I wanted Nina close by at all times. I needed to know how many exits the house had, find the areas of the floor with the most splinters, see if the creaky stairs posed any kind of danger.”

Unfortunately for Amanda and Carla they live in a poisoned world full of invisible danger. Where will the threat come from? Will it come from David, alone in the house with Nina?

“This is insane, I think. David is just a little boy. But I can’t help it now. I’m running. I dig in my pocket for the keys and I’m so nervous that even though I have them between my fingers, I can’t get them out.”

Or will it come unexpectedly, unnoticed though your child is standing next to you:

“With the colour of her clothes I can’t tell how wet she is, but I touch her and, yes, she’s wet.
‘It’s dew,’ I tell her, ‘It’ll dry while we’re walking.’
This is it. This is the moment.

Fever Dream can, of course, be interpreted in many ways. This title itself implies that we should take nothing for granted, that the David Amanda converses with may not be real. It is, however, profoundly disturbing, a novel which seems to threaten the reader with a voice as quietly menacing as David’s. You may find yourself looking up from its pages for your children. You may never feel comfortable again.